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Commonwealth by Ann Patchett: The many stories of a family

Cover imageI have something of a chequered relationship with Ann Patchett’s writing: I loved The Magician’s Assistant but couldn’t see what all the fuss was about with the Orange Prize-winning Bel Canto. I was a little wary of becoming too excited about Commonwealth, then, despite an engaging blurb and a particularly attractive cover, but it completely won me over. It’s the story of a family, one which increasingly extends itself as marriages multiply and children are born. It’s also about the stories families tell themselves and how those stories can become more public than we might wish them to be.

In 1964 Fix Keating opens the door to a guest at his daughter’s christening party to be met by a face he barely recognises. It belongs to a district attorney, not someone that a policeman like himself would count as a friend. Clutching a bottle of gin, Bert Cousins walks through the door as if he’s been invited when all he’s doing is avoiding Sunday with his own family. Gin at a christening party turns it in to something else entirely, sparking drunken encounters that will change lives irrevocably. A few years later Bert has married Fix’s beautiful wife Beverly and moved from Los Angeles to Virginia. His four children spend their summers with their father: Calvin, who likes to steal his father’s gun and tuck it into his sock; Holly the sensible one; otherworldly Jeannette and troublesome Albie, kept quiet by ‘tic-tacs’ fed to him by his siblings. Together with Caroline, furious at her mother’s desertion, and Franny, whose christening party Bert gate-crashed, these six form a tribe allowed to run wild by Bert and Beverly who would far rather look the other way until tragedy changes everything. As the years pass connections become tenuous, then are renewed. Marriages are made, children are born and Franny meets one of her literary heroes, blocked and in need of inspiration.

Patchett’s intricately constructed novel crisscrosses the years from Franny’s christening party to the present day, telling the stories of the Keatings and the Cousins but always returning to Franny, the novel’s linchpin. Patchett is an expert in show not tell: stories are told and re-told as family members share them with each other – sometimes with illuminating differences. As the family extends itself over a half-century, new characters make an appearance but Patchett never loses her focus on Franny. Points are made but never laboured – both Leon’s exploitation of Franny’s story and Bert and Beverly’s negligent parenting are crucial to the novel’s development but lightly drawn. There’s a vein of gentle wry humour running through the novel: the scene in a hotel lift when Franny is frantically trying to extract the drunken Leon’s room key from him is downright comedic. It’s all beautifully done, loose ends neatly stitched in. Pleasingly rounded characters, meticulously constructed structure and thoroughly absorbing storytelling – no need for wariness with this one whose ending completes a beautifully executed circle.